Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Geology

Wildflowers and Waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge

A trio of bright pink rocket-shaped wildflowers are seen in front of grasses and a yellow wildflower.
A broad river sits at the bottom of a green valley

Looking east along the Columbia River Gorge toward The Dalles on an alternately sunny & rainy March afternoon. 

In the home stretch of its more than 1,000 mile-long journey from the Canadian Rockies to the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia River has carved a spectacular canyon that now forms the border between Oregon and Washington: the Columbia River Gorge. Nearly 100 miles in length, the Columbia River Gorge is one of the most unique landscapes in the Pacific Northwest, and home to some spectacular geology. Most of the gorge is carved into the Columbia River Basalts, layers upon layers of volcanic rock formed by vast lava flows that inundated most of central and eastern Washington about 16 million years ago. More recently, a series of large glacial outburst floods at the end of the last ice age broadened and re-shaped the gorge as they raged their way down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, creating many of the landforms that we see today.

By the time the Columbia River enters the gorge, its elevation has already dropped to just 160 feet above sea level. The low elevation of the gorge makes it one of the warmest areas in the Pacific Northwest, and a prime destination for some early season camping. We recently spent three days in the Columbia River Gorge soaking up what passes for balmy weather this time of year around here.

A large river sits at the bottom of a broad, deep gorge.

An early spring view of the eastern Columbia River Gorge from Rowena Crest Overlook on the Oregon side of the gorge. 

A streak of headlights illuminates a winding mountain road with stars overhead.

Motorcycle headlights illuminate the sweeping curves of the Historic Columbia River Highway just below Rowena Crest. The constellation of Canis Major sits just above the horizon. While the historic highway has been largely replaced by the much less charismatic I-84, large portions remain as backroads or hiking trails.

Two of the main attractions in the Columbia River Gorge are wildflowers and waterfalls. Even now, in mid-to-late March, the wildflower show was already in full swing, particularly in the drier, warmer, eastern reaches of the gorge:

A trio of bright pink rocket-shaped wildflowers are seen in front of grasses and a yellow wildflower.

Shooting stars (Dodecatheon sp.) are among the early blooming wildflowers in the eastern Columbia River Gorge. A yellow fritillary (Fritillaria pudica) lurks in the background.

A patch of bright pink flowers at the base of a low, rounded hill

Grass widows (Olsynium douglasii) are some of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in large numbers in the eastern Columbia River Gorge.

A cluster of bright pink flowers in a grassy field next to a rock.

More grass widows…

A cluster of bright pink flowers in the middle of a hiking trail.

Most grass widows are a vibrant pinkish purple color, but white petals are also found here and there. 

A few clusters of small yellow flowers sit on a rock with a river and gorge in the background.

Pungent desert parsley (Lomatium grayi) at Horsethief Butte. 

One of the most remarkable sights in the Columbia River Gorge is experiencing the rapid change in environment as you drive through the gorge from east to west. The Dalles, located near the eastern end of the gorge, lies in the rain shadow of the Cascade Range and receives very little precipitation: just 14 inches annually. Here, the rocky slopes of the gorge are nearly devoid of any vegetation other than wildflowers and grasses. Just half an hour and a handful of freeway exists to the west, the average annual precipitation has increased to about 30 inches at Hood River, and ponderosa pine and Douglas fir cover the slopes. 20 more miles/minutes to the west, at Cascade Locks, annual precipitation rises to over 75 inches and the gorge is filled with the dense, shady, and mossy forests typically associated with the Pacific Northwest. In other words, you can travel from a true desert to a near-rainforest in less than an hour, while driving on a nearly flat interstate that hugs the shore of massive reservoirs created by dams along the lower Columbia River.

A cluster of large, yellow, daisy-like flowers sits next to a boulder at the base of a tall cliff of brown rocks.

Large clusters of balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sp.) were beginning to flower in some of the drier, eastern parts of the Gorge, like these at Horsethief Butte.

Fungus and moss grows on a rotten log on the forest floor

An unknown species of fungus shares a decaying log with some moss. Scenes like this are common in the wetter, western half of the Columbia River Gorge.

The combination of dramatic terrain and copious precipitation at the western end of the Columbia River Gorge (particularly on the more mountainous Oregon side) combines to form some of the most spectacular waterfalls in the United States. As the aforementioned ice age floods flowed through the gorge on their way to the Pacific, they removed the lower ends of valleys belonging to the Columbia’s many tributary streams. Consequently, many of these tributaries enter the gorge several hundred feet above river level, terminating in spectacular plunges that carry their water into the Columbia River:

A thin waterfall plunges from a cliff of volcanic rock and covered in bright green mosses.

Latourell Falls plunges over a cliff of columnar basalt at the western end of the Columbia River Gorge, not far from Portland. This photo is a bit blurry; the trails to several of these waterfalls were busy, even on a somewhat chilly Tuesday in March, making it hard to set up a tripod for a steady shot. 

A thin, tall waterfall plunges off of a cliff into a pool.

Elowah Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. This shady alcove was heavily burned in the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017, but is already showing signs of re-growth. 

A waterfall and cascade flows through a verdant forest as a hiker looks on.

Starvation Creek Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

A waterfall and cascade flows through a verdant forest.

Starvation Creek Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Let’s be clear: with temperatures in the 40s and 50s and the nearly constant winds that blow through the gorge, it was no spring break in Florida, but after a long winter and with the Cascades still buried in snow for several more months, the greenery and signs of spring were a welcome sight. (Even though we did have our tent totally chewed up by an unknown animal…a first for us in many, many nights of camping throughout the west!)


Summiting Mt. St. Helens

Panorama of a large volcanic crater with a mound of solidified lava in the center
View of rocky and snowy ridgeline with volcanic peak in the background

Looking east along the crater rim of Mt. St. Helens to Mt. Adams in the distance.

Of all the volcanoes in the northern Cascades, Mt. St. Helens is by far the easiest to climb. For starters, the most common route, Monitor Ridge on the south flank, is non-technical, eliminating the need for specialized gear or advanced mountaineering skills. At just 8,366 feet, its summit elevation post-1980 eruption places it several thousand feet lower than neighbors such as Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker, and Mt. Rainier, essentially taking the ill effects of altitude out of the equation. However, at 10 miles round trip and with about 5,000 feet of elevation gain, it’s still a robust day hike.

After numerous trips to the base of Mt. St. Helens over the years, reaching the summit of this active volcano has long been on my to-do list. When we moved back to Washington last summer, I knew I might finally get my chance. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest limits the number of climbers to 100 per day in the summer months, and the permits sell out quickly when they go on sale in March. Sadly, I missed the initial sale this year, leaving me to obsessively check every few days for cancellations. Eventually I got lucky and spotted two permits up for grabs in late-July. A few minutes later, they were mine.

From a distance and elevation gain standpoint, the hike up Monitor Ridge is comparable to many of Colorado’s famous “Fourteeners”. One major difference: on Mt. St. Helens we would be topping out at a lower elevation than one starts most Fourteener climbs at. The other big difference would be the terrain. Most Fourteeners have a fairly distinct path a good way up the mountain and are on reasonably solid rock (my dislike of exposure and falling means I haven’t done any of the ones on rotten rock). On Mt. St. Helens, after a brief foray through the forest, the climb traverses a mixture of large lava boulders and a loose scree consisting of pumice and volcanic ash. This is a hike where a mask was on the suggested gear list before they were cool!

To the hike! As the National Weather Service had accurately predicted several days in advance, the morning of our climb dawned with some fairly dense fog at the Climbers Bivouac trailhead where we had camped the previous night. We hit the trail at 6:00 am, anticipating that it would take us 4-5 hours to reach the summit. The first two miles of trail climbs gently through a moist and somewhat unremarkable second growth forest. At timberline is where the route changes from a well-maintained trail to the aforementioned scree and boulder scramble. Wooden posts serve as guides for the remainder of the climb, but following them too closely didn’t always make for the most sensible route. In places there is a fairly obvious path, while in others (particularly in the boulder fields), you just sort of have to find what works best. Just before arriving at timberline, we began to emerge from the clouds, revealing views of Mt. Adams to the east and the extremely conical Mt. Hood to the south that we enjoyed the rest of the day. Once above the trees, our pace slowed significantly, but before too long we were several hundred feet above the cloud deck we had been immersed in a short time earlier:

A hiker scrambles up a rocky slope with a forest and low-lying clouds in the background

Breaking out of the trees on the Monitor Ridge route.

A hiker walks along a rocky ridge with clouds and a distant volcanic peak in the backgrounde background

Heading up Mt. St. Helens with the clouds below us and Mt. Hood in the background.

Dark, jagged volcanic rocks on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens with clouds far below

Nearing the top of the boulder field on the Monitor Ridge route. Only a mile to go!

We made fairly good time through the ~2 miles of boulder fields. The final mile through a deep and loose mixture of volcanic ash and pumice was definitely the most challenging part of the hike. With masks on to prevent inhaling clouds of ash kicked up by our feet (and the wind), it was somewhat analogous to hiking up a sand dune: two steps forward, one step back, repeat. After about four hours, we were standing on the crater rim.

The first view northward into the bowels of Mt. St. Helens was stunning, and definitely one of the most dramatic viewpoints I can recall. Unlike many lesser peaks in the Cascades, or most peaks in the Rockies, where you are often surrounded by other peaks of comparable elevation, Mt. St. Helens stands alone. On this volcano, you are standing on what is, by far, the highest point for dozens of miles in any direction, with only the other volcanoes exceeding you in height. Looking down onto the crater formed by the 1980 eruption, the lava domes that are slowly rebuilding the summit, and the Crater Glacier (one of the few alpine glaciers in the world that is actually advancing) was spectacular. Cornices of hard-packed, dirty snow clung to the nearly vertical slopes of the crater walls just beneath our feet, necessitating caution as we moved our way along the rim. Gentle puffs of steam were visible on portions of the lava dome, a gentle reminder that we were standing at the summit of one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The dull roar of rock and ice fall from the crater walls was nearly constant for the hour we spent taking in the view from the summit.

Panorama of a large volcanic crater with a mound of solidified lava in the center

Panorama from the Mt. St. Helens crater rim, looking north across the lava dome and Crater Glacier to Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier. (Click image to enlarge)

Panorama showing a variety of distant mountains and a low cloud layer

Panorama looking south from the crater rim. Mt. Adams at left, Mt. Hood just left of center. (Click image to enlarge)

View of a volcanic peak with a blue lake in the foreground

Clouds part to reveal Spirit Lake and the distant cone of Mt. Rainier, more than 4,000 feet higher that Mt. St. Helens.

While the hike up had been relatively uneventful, the journey down was definitely less pleasant. Hiking poles are a must for the descent due to the steep, loose, and rocky terrain. This is definitely one of those hikes where coming down is exponentially more difficult than going up!

Compared to our experience hiking Fourteeners in Colorado, the significantly lower elevation of this hike makes a huge difference and in my opinion dramatically lowers the overall difficultly of this route. There is a big difference between inching your way up a scree slope at 13,000′ and having to stop every few steps to take in oxygen, and doing the same at 8,000′ where breathing isn’t as much of an issue. While the terrain was definitely more difficult than your average hike with similar specs, in the end we felt like the difficulty of the Monitor Ridge route was somewhat over-hyped based on some of the accounts we read in advance. We wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. As far as special gear, a mask was definitely helpful for both COVID and volcanic ash purposes. Hiking poles were more or less useless on the way up, as the boulder fields often required the use of hands to navigate, but essential on the way down. Other sources recommended bringing garden gloves to protect against cuts on the sharp volcanic rocks. We bought some cheap ones and definitely found them useful. I never actually put mine on during the ascent, and made it to the summit with only one small abrasion on the back of my hand. Long pants are also a must if you don’t want your lower legs ripped to shreds by the rocks.

With Mt. St. Helens checked off, next up on the to-do list is Mt. Adams, which is also a non-technical climb at the right time of year, albeit longer. We may not get to that one this summer…perhaps our goal will be to climb one Cascade volcano per year!


Alaska (Part Three)

White and blue glacial ice contrasts with lush green carpet of vegetation
A valley containing a glacier is partially obscure by a bank of clouds

Morning clouds partially obscure the Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The last destination on our Alaskan journey was the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. After a few days respite from the wildfire smoke in Wrangell-St. Elias, it returned with a vengeance as we headed back to Anchorage and down to the the coast:

Tree dotted grassy plain with mountains obscured by smoke

Wildfire smoke obscures the Chugach Mountains en route to Anchorage

After baking in the heat of the Alaskan interior for the last week, the marine climate of Seward was a welcome change. We even had a bit of rain for one of the few times in our entire trip.

While temperatures in Seward we’re somewhat more mild, the coastal location meant the humidity was not. On our first day in Seward, we partook in a brutal hike up to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park. The hike itself was not abnormally difficult, but we were definitely not used to the combination of heat and humidity, leaving me feeling physically ill at several points during the slog up the mountain. The day had started off overcast, but as we climbed, the clouds evaporated leaving us with stellar views of the rapidly retreating Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield from which it originates. An icefield is essentially a large mass of interconnecting glaciers. The Harding Icefield is the largest — and one of only four — remaining icefields in the United States. The Exit Glacier itself has retreated more than a mile in the last 200 years, leaving trees and other vegetation to begin re-occupying it’s former valley.

A deep mountain valley with a braided stream and some clouds

Looking down the valley partially occupied by the Exit Glacier just a few hundred years ago.

The white and blue ice of the glacier made for a stellar contrast with the lush green vegetation of the alpine zone:

White and blue glacial ice contrasts with lush green carpet of vegetation

Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Looking out over the Harding Icefield, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Deep fissures in glacial ice

Crevasses in the Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The wet climate of coastal Alaska results in extremely heavy snowfalls, making this one of only a handful of places in the world where glaciers flow all the way down to sea level to meet the ocean. Known as tidewater glaciers, these glaciers exhibit complex patterns of advance and retreat that, unlike standard alpine glaciers, are not purely the result of variations in climate. While warmer temperatures or prolonged drought can certainly reduce their mass, the movement of tidewater glaciers is also subject to complex interactions between the ice, the geomtery of the ocean floor, and the depth of the water into which they flow.

On our second day in Seward, we took a water taxi into the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park and then kayaked to within about a quarter mile of the terminus of Holgate Glacier. Tidewater glaciers have a tendency to “calve”, in which large chunks of ice break off the glacier and fall into the ocean, necessitating a safe distance. Glacier “social distancing” if you will. It is not hard to find videos on YouTube of people getting too close to calving tidewater glaciers, with quite predictable results. From our safe distance, we observed and heard several calving events in the few hours we were kayaking around the bay, but unfortunately I was not adept enough at kayaking into position quickly enough to actually capture one on camera.

Two kayakers approach a large glacier

Kayaking toward the terminus of the Holgate Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

A hand holds a small piece of ice that has broken off of a glacier

Tiny iceberg, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Our boat ride back to Seward through Resurrection Bay also resulted in sightings of sea lions, seals, puffins, and even two pods of orcas: an exciting end to the trip!

The fin and head of a black and white whale is visible just above the water line

Orca, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Three black fins just upward from the ocean surface

Orcas, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

A small black and white bird with orange beak and feet

Horned Puffin (from the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward, because the photo was better than the wild ones…)